Hiking the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park: 3 things you must know
The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park is, by far, the best hike in the park. Not only it is easy, but you’ll have the best views of the park and the surrounding Prairie.
The Notch Trail is the most popular hike in Badlands National Park, famous for its stark landscape and awe-inspiring views. This trail also features the most “instagramable” landmark of the Badlands – the log ladder. The Notch trail is an easy hike, perfect for beginners (the only difficult part is descending the ladder, and that was nothing to write home about).
As I mentioned in my previous blog, we traveled to South Dakota in August and the summer heat made it almost unbearable to be outside – especially during peak hours. To avoid the heat and crowds, we decided to wake up really early (6:30 am) for our hike to the Notch Trail. Our hotel was about 15 minutes away, so we had the park all to ourselves.
Doing the hike, or any hike in the Badlands, needs to take into account the heat – there is hardly any shade (mostly coming from the shadows of the rock outcrops) on the trail. Make sure you avoid the searing heat if you hike the trail in the summer. Arriving early had the added benefit that we encountered hardly anyone in the trail, which allowed us to take our time to enjoy the park, and we had no issue finding parking.
How do you get to the Notch Trail?
The Notch Trail can be accessed near the northeast entrance of the Badlands National Park, which is found before the visitor center, and you’ll immediately recognize it by the rock formations and large parking area. This serves as the trailhead for many other hikes, with the Door and Window trails close by and the big trek across the Prairie, the Castle tail, across the street. For your convenience, park at the southern end (farthest part from the entrance) of the parking lot as you will be closer to the start of the trail.
Tip: I recommend you hike during the early morning since the sun will provide perfect lighting for your photos. There are tons of animals around, including rattlesnakes – thankfully we never encountered any during the morning hike.
How long does it take to hike the Notch Trail?
The Notch Trail is not too long (1.5 miles/2.4 km roundtrip) and it can take you between 1.5 to 2 hours depending on how long you stop for photos. The trail is marked as moderate to strenuous on the park’s official website. For Christian and I who are not hikers by any means, the hike was moderate and really easy in many parts. I believe it’s doable for most people, but it’s not recommended for anyone who has a fear of heights. The ladder looks more intimidating than it is, but you will be fairly high up. Once you reach the Notch itself, you may not want to look down as you will be high above the Prairie.
The trail is well marked, and easy to follow; there is a sign at the start warning that there is rough terrain ahead, and pets are not allowed. You will also see signs warning of rattlesnakes along the way so be careful – keep your eyes and ears open. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any during the two days we spent at Badlands National Park, however they are a common predator in the area. Once you are ready to start the hike, you will follow a gravel and mostly flat road, which is not hard at all, throughout the lower end of the trail.
After a few minutes, you will get to the famed wooden ladder (do not forget to take a picture at this location, both from the bottom and the amazing perspective from the summit). If there are people going up or down, you will need to wait for your turn as it only allows for one-way traffic.
It’s not difficult but if you have a fear of heights it might be challenging. It was scarier to go down (for me) but I didn’t have any problems. Hold tight to the wooden logs and don’t look down while you descend. There is a part where you will feel tempted to hop off and walk down the side as the cliff transitions to the trail, be careful as this is very slippery.
After ascending the ladder, the trail gently meanders along the ridge of the shallow canyon. There are some great moments to soak in on this part of the trail including tons of incredible rock formations all around you. You will have a great view of a mini-canyon from above – it is truly spectacular. When walking along the rocks, please watch your step as there are a few potentially unstable sections, nothing major but if you are not expecting it you may slip.
Avoid hiking this trail after it rains and wait for better weather conditions; the trail is naturally very dusty, and the rain will cover everything in slippery mud. Remember to keep looking behind you because the changing perspectives offers great photo opportunities where you can capture the ladder in its surroundings – the amazing landscape will take your breath away (blog banner photo)!The trail ends with a beautiful view over the White River Valley where there is a moderate incline to reach it. In my opinion, the rock formations that you will see along the way were the highlight of the trail; my husband loved the views from the top of the ladder and the end of the trail. There is only one way back – you will have to retrace your steps to go back to the parking lot.
What should you bring along?
Hiking shoes: We hiked this trail in sneakers (and we even saw people hiking like mountain goats wearing flip flops). However, you will encounter some trickier parts along the trail, so it’s better to wear hiking shoes to avoid a possible mishap.
For women: Oboz sawtooth II low b-dry hiking shoe
Hat: The sun can be brutal, so bring a good hat with you. The North Face Washed Norm Hat is really cute!
Water: You will get thirsty (especially during the summer months) along the way so bring water with you. We recommend the Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle which you can fill at the hotel in advance.
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